After the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, victims of child sexual abuse and their advocates have been hopeful that they were finally being heard. The public outcry over Nassar’s crimes, along with the #metoo movement, has led to the introduction of new legislation throughout the country that protects victims from abusers and the organizations that harbor them.
In Georgia, the State House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 605 (“HB 605”), which would increase the age by which a victim can file a claim from 23 to 38 and allow a one-year retroactive window under which victims who were previously barred from filing claims could sue their abusers and entities who knew or should have known about the abuse.
Amendments passed in the Senate, however, have threatened to significantly weaken the bill in crucial ways. This has led to a showdown today at the Capitol as proponents of the House version fight for its survival.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on March 22, 2018, amendments to HB605 were passed that would decrease the House’s proposed age by which a victim can file a claim from age 30 and would only allow victims under age 31 to access the retroactive window provision. According to committee Chairman Jesse Stone put it, “strike a balance for victims’ rights and the rights of defendants, particularly entities, to due process.” Disappointingly, the overwhelming consensus of the committee seemed to be not #MeToo or #TimesUp, but rather more along the lines of #EntitiesToo.
- Claims against entities for failing to protect children from sexual predators, such as the one filed by Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman against USA Gymnastics, are authorized by laws meant to serve two major functions: 1) to compensate victims for the harm they’ve incurred, and 2) to punish those responsible for the harm.
- The harms caused by child sexual abuse extend throughout the lifetime of a victim. Children who are sexually abused are more likely to experience emotional and mental health problems, academic problems, delinquency or crime, and teen pregnancy. As adults, survivors of child sexual abuse are more likely to suffer from depression, report a suicide attempt, have substance abuse, and develop eating disorders.
- According to the Child Abuse and Neglect Journal, the estimated average lifetime cost per victim of child abuse is over $200,000, which includes expenses such as health care costs, mental health costs, and productivity losses. An award of civil damages helps victims recover these costs, which are often not covered by insurance.
Child sexual abuse lawsuits are meant to impose liability on those who commit the abuse, and perhaps more importantly, those who fail to protect children from the abuse. If the Senate ’s version of HB605 becomes law, fewer victims will have access to the civil justice system. Without such access, perpetrators, and their protective entities, will escape accountability. Prior to the Senate’s amendments, 100 percent of the child sexual abuse victims over the age of 23 who contacted the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic, a pro bono legal clinic at the University of Georgia Law School, would be able to file a lawsuit against their abusers. After the Senate’s amendments? Only 12.5 percent.
It is important to be clear about the primary motivating factor behind such a dramatic reduction. It is not due process, and it is not defendants’ rights. It is prioritizing entities’ business-as-usual over victims’ access to justice.
Individuals who have experienced child sexual abuse often have difficulty trusting others, especially those in positions of authority. In cases of child sexual abuse, the positions of authority are the perpetrators and those controlling members of entities who failed to protect victims.
Another critical position of authority is the elected representative. They have the power to pass laws that will protect children from sexual abuse. They can create laws that alleviate injury and fairly allocate risk. They can articulate a public policy that makes clear: entities who protect abusers will not be safeguarded.
If our legislature truly wants to provide greater protections for victims of child sexual abuse, it will have to answer an important question: can you take a meaningful stand for justice by prioritizing victims over entities? Unfortunately, the Senate’s amendments seem to have already answered that question: #EntitiesToo.
*Emma Hetherington is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and Director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic. Through the CEASE Clinic Hetherington represents survivors of sexual abuse in civil lawsuits and juvenile court proceedings. Hetherington’s research focuses on trauma-informed interdisciplinary practice and using the courtroom as a place of healing for survivors.